The birth of a daughter is still considered a misfortune by a vast number of people in many societies in India and other South East Asian countries, especially among the poor. The birth of a son, on the other hand, is celebrated. As a son grows up, he goes to work and earns money not just for himself, but for the entire family -- because he is duty bound to provide financial and physical support for aging parents and because he will become the sentinel of the family name. When he becomes of marriageable age, he also brings a wife, who then serves the family.
A daughter's birth is quite another story, however. Besides being another mouth to feed, the burden multiplies as daughters grow up. Their virtues must to be closely guarded as they emerge into womanhood so they can be married off without difficulty. A girl with compromised morals cannot be considered a suitable wife and will not be accepted by a potential groom. And if a suitable husband is not found when a girl is still young and fresh, parents worry that they might have to assume the responsibility of feeding and clothing her for the rest of her life.
The age-old custom of dowry demands by a potential groom, still prevalent in many parts, adds to the financial strain of the daughter on the family. Female infanticide, the killing of baby girls, is still practiced in some remote parts of India as a solution to the burdens of giving birth to a daughter. However, such practices are not just limited to the poor and the uneducated.
Modern technology, which has been made affordable, has found a new and easier partner in this cruel and inhuman crime. With the help of unscrupulous doctors driven by greed, expectant parents are able to determine the gender of the fetus through ultrasound procedures. Then, the undesirable female fetus is flushed out.
The killing of baby girls by selective abortion was made illegal in India some years ago. More than three dozen other countries have enacted such laws to prevent sex-selective abortions. However, enforcement of such laws is difficult, and authorities do not take it seriously. Many people use clever schemes to elude detection, like a woman having an ultrasound in one location and the abortion in another. In most cases, these greedy doctors are willing and active participants making such crimes difficult to intercept. What's more, law enforcement officials can be easily bribed to look the other way.
The issue of female infanticide -- discrimination against women and girls in its cruelest form -- is getting quite a bit of attention these days. In December 2011, ABC's 20/20 exposed some of these ultrasound death clinics in India that have found a new way to carry out an ancient and barbaric tradition. India's prime minister went on record to call this crime against women and girls a national shame. Women, too, are equally responsible for this crime against their own gender. In this case, it was the husband who wanted his wife to abort the girl child, but it was the mother-in-law who attempted to push the daughter-in-law down the stairs to cause a miscarriage when she learned of the ultrasound findings. This is not just an issue of ignorance and poverty; it is an issue of ingrained cultural attitude and prejudices.
It is important to point out that women have come a long way and they are beginning to break free from enduring their established fate. More than four decades ago, a woman, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister in India. Today, many are not just mothers, teachers and homemakers but shine at every profession, including leaderships roles in politics. But in many parts of the world, including the Western World, a vast number of women are diminished and brutalized by men.
Last week, a GOP Selective Abortion Bill, which banned sex-selective abortions and was said to have targeted Asian-Americans, did not pass. This exercise, however, brought this serious issue into the limelight and put those who are guilty of this practice on notice.
Those of us fortunate enough to have a voice must speak up and add our voices to the millions of women who stood up to fight for dignity and for women's rights with the hope that eventually our collective voices will ring loudly enough to be heard in every corner of the world. Women and men must work tirelessly to change attitudes and value women as mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.
Women give birth, nurture the young, comfort the old and pray over the dead. Most of all, women continue on with traditions and rituals that connect one generation to another. Yet they are regarded as inferior and diminished in a society dominated by men. Women have made great strides in their own empowerment with the help of local and global initiatives. When we value women, we empower an entire generation.